ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins' two-game lead in the NFC East was wiped out in three weeks. If they’re not careful, their playoff hopes could be dashed over the next two weeks as well.
They wouldn’t be eliminated, of course. They would just be placed on life support.
With a tightening race, it’s likely that to make the playoffs, they’ll have to be NFC East champs, even though they currently have one of two wild-card spots in the NFC.
For most of the past month, the Redskins have looked like anything but a playoff team, having lost three of their past four games. That, more than anything, is the biggest hurdle they face. They are tied with Dallas at 6-5 in the NFC East, one game ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles.
If the Redskins don’t win Monday at Philadelphia, their road goes from hard to brutal.
They play the New York Giants in two weeks. While the Giants are 3-8, they’ve shown life of late, and the Redskins can’t afford to stumble vs. anyone. That will be a third straight divisional game, and if they happen to lose all three, the Redskins will be 6-7 overall and 2-3 in the division, a tie-breaking dagger.
“It all boils down to us taking care of our business,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. “Right now, we don’t need any help. We just have to help ourselves by playing mistake-free football and stringing along wins together.”
It’s easy to see a 9-7 record winning the NFC East; that's what Washington won with in 2015. The Redskins certainly have the schedule to produce such a record. The question is: Can they? They play three of their final five games on the road and face the Eagles twice.
It wouldn’t be impossible to earn a wild-card spot, but that would require the Redskins to elbow out teams such as Seattle, Minnesota and Carolina. The Seahawks (6-5) have the easiest path, with two games remaining vs. San Francisco (2-9) and one vs. Arizona (2-9).
The Redskins beat Carolina, which is also in a downward spiral, earlier this season, so they own the first tiebreaker. The Vikings could be helped by their tie, however. If they win three more games, they will finish 9-6-1. The problem for Minnesota is its schedule. The Vikings play at New England and at Seattle in the next two weeks. After games vs. Miami and at Detroit, they finish at home vs. Chicago. It might be a struggle for the Vikings to reach nine wins as well. The Eagles, meanwhile, could jump back into contention with a win Monday.
The Redskins looked sloppy on both sides of the ball in their Thanksgiving loss at Dallas. A team that had a schedule set up for a good finish -- much like last year -- might end up stumbling to the end once more.
In the past month, Washington's offense has lost four starters for the season, and two other key players -- third-down back Chris Thompson and slot receiver Jamison Crowder -- have missed a combined 13 games. That has left the team with an inconsistent run game featuring poor execution and a passing game without speed on the outside at receiver. The good news for Washington is that Thompson practiced Monday and could return against the Eagles next Monday night. Not only can he make defenders miss, but he also excels in pass protection. The Redskins could use Thompson in certain packages that Adrian Peterson currently runs. That would enable Peterson, nursing a sore shoulder, to take on a lighter load. A full week of practice time for quarterback Colt McCoy will help as well.
Will that be enough? The Redskins relied on their run game, the defense and a lack of turnovers in reaching a 5-2 record. Since that time, they rank 29th in yards allowed and 16th in points. On offense, they rank 24th in three key areas: total yards, points scored and rushing yards per game.
The Redskins have time left. They remain optimistic. But they also know the reality: If things don't change soon, it'll be another lost season.